by Gretchen Stringer-Robinson
From the colonial period on, James Island hosted a large black population. They were brought in against their will from the Senegal-Gambia and Congo-Angola regions, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
In 1720, Gov. James More issued a report showing 2,493 slaves in the St. Andrew’s Parish, of which James Island was then a part. The estate of John Rivers, (1857) lists 80 slaves. None have last names, but records show first names such as “Fortune,” “Delicate,” “March,” and “Brister”.
Contributions of language and cuisine
These enslaved “colonists” brought their African heritage with them. Gullah, which is a blend of West African languages and English, thrived on the sea islands. This lyrical language created words such as “tote” for carry, “bubba” for brother, and “gumbo,” that savory stew of shellfish, onion, celery and bell pepper.
Language was one contribution; food was another. Rice brought the Africans (although unwillingly) to America, and became a southern staple in large part because the slaves who knew how to grow it also knew how to cook it. Okra, lima and kidney beans, as well as yam and sesame are other foods brought to the Americas by Africans.
African heritage came with useful knowledge
In addition to rice cultivation, Gambians were experts in cattle management and were in high demand on James Island during the ante bellum period. The Africans also brought their knowledge of basket-making, wood and metal work, leatherwork and pottery-making.
They were at home on the South Carolina waterways because of their African heritage in boating and fishing. Their ability as farmers helped the islanders raise such crops as string beans, corn, cabbage, cucumbers, okra, sweet potatoes, collard greens, Irish potatoes, and eggplant.
Not to be forgotten
James Island was home to several plantations: McLeod, Grimball, Rivers, Dill, Ellis, Seabrook, Lawton, Clark, Hinson, Royall, Mikell, Croskey, Legare, Lebby, Bee, Freer and Mellechamp.
After emancipation, many freedmen stayed on the island and worked the land as sharecroppers. Some purchased land from their former masters. Others left for the north.
Where Meridian and Queensboro subdivisions are now, slaves lived. It was a section of the Dill Plantation and was called Turkey Pen and Cut Bridge. In fact, all over James Island we’ve built subdivisions over land where slaves and white planters lived and worked.
Slaves helped build this nation and many individuals on James Island can trace their lineage to slaves on local plantations. Their hard work felled many a tree and cultivated swampy lands to grow rice, ensuring the wealth and well-being of white planters. James Island slaves became the ancestors of the African Americans who are part of the amazing fabric of our nation today. Their sacrifices and the terrible injustice that led them here will never be forgotten.
If you are interested in this subject, we recommend you read the sources used in the writing of this article:
Frazier, Eugene Sr. A History of James island: Slave Descendants & Plantation Owners: The Bloodline, Charleston S.C.: The History Press, 2010.
Frazier, Eugene Sr. James Island: Stories from Slave Descendants. Charleston S.C.: The History Press, 2006.
James Island and Johns Island Historical Survey. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. 1989.
A History of Gullah Cuisine: How Rice Built a Lowcountry Legacy. Discover South Carolina. Published online 2/17/2015.
Gretchen Stringer is our History Correspondent and an Adjunct History Instructor at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and Central Carolina.